Every once in a while, there's a move that doesn't really mean much that you just have to talk about. Late last evening (January 4th for future readers), the Chicago Cubs sent longtime Cub Carlos Zambrano to the Miami Marlins. Here's a breakdown of the deal as it has been reported:
RHP Carlos Zambrano
RHP Chris Volstad
It became obvious over the last few months of the regular season that the Cubs' change in management (and ensuing change in culture) meant the end of Big Z's days as a Cub. With all of the explosions, fights with teammates, and unfair battles with gatorade coolers, there were seemingly no places for Zambrano to go...with the exception of Miami. Why Miami? Well, the guy in the title says it all. Ozzie Guillen and Carlos Zambrano had a well-known relationship during their time in Chicago, and it must have become apparent to people that Big Z's last (and maybe only) opportunity was going to come under playing for one of his best friends. So the Marlins are banking on the fact that they can make something useful out of the 2.5 million they will be sending Zambrano's way in 2012. On the surface, this deal looks like nothing more than a change of scenery move for a couple of guys that really needed it. However, this is a move that could benefit the Cubs in the long term. Let's look at the deal for both sides, starting with why the Cubs would make this move:
Chicago Cubs' Thinking
It has been very much apparent this off season that Theo Epstein and Co. are sticking to their plan of building a new culture in the Chicago. They're looking to get younger, they're looking to get more talented, and they're looking for guys that they think can fit the idea of the "Cubs Way." Already, they've made moves to get younger and more talented by bringing in guys like David DeJesus, Ian Stewart, and Travis Wood. None of the moves are big splashes, but when you consider the money spent and the pieces moved, there's a gain here. So far, the players (outside of Reed Johnson) have increased the talent of the team by adding depth. Last year, it was extremely apparent that the Cubs lacked the MLB ready pitching in the minors to overcome early injuries to Andrew Cashner and Randy Wells in the rotation. But why trade a starting pitcher for a starting pitcher? Well, let's consider a few things:
Even if Theo and new manager Dale Sveum got Zambrano to turn things around for 2012, he in no way fit the bill for the Cubs as they look to build towards a world championship. At 31 by opening day 2012 with one year remaining on his contract, it made little sense for the Cubs to hold onto him. So what did they do? They traded for Chris Volstad, who will only be 25 on opening day 2012 and comes with control through the 2014 season. From a control standpoint, they got younger (by 6 years) and added 2 years of a cost-controlled starter. Even if Volstad doesn't get any better, the Cubs have acquired more youth and control to build on the depth within the rotation.
2) The "Culture"
As mentioned before, Theo and his partners are trying to build a winning culture in Chicago. They want to emphasize hard work, focus, and reliability. With Zambrano's short fuse and seemingly terrible relationships with teammates, he did not fit the bill for this culture at all. Yes, Zambrano has a winning record and has been a big part of 3 playoff teams, but going forward he does not carry that kind of value. He simply wasn't the kind of guy to have on a team that wants to win. Does Volstad fit the culture? I have no idea, because he's been so quiet in the past that I've never heard anything about his personality, which could be exactly what Theo is looking for.
As mentioned before, on the surface this deal looks like nothing more than a salary dump. However, I've already mentioned how the Cubs have gotten more youthful, more control, and have worked towards the culture they want to build with this deal. That's not all there is to it: there's a good possibility that Volstad is better right now than Carlos Zambrano. Huh? Well, hear me out. Let's begin by looking at some rates for each over the past two years:
2010: 8.12 K/ 4.79 BB/ .49 HR/ 43.6% GB/ 5.2% HRFB/ 4.27 xFIP/ 4.33 SIERA
2011: 6.24 K/ 3.46 BB/ 1.17 HR/ 42.4% GB/ 11.3% HRFB/ 4.34 xFIP/ 4.46 SIERA
Career: 7.60 K/ 4.05 BB/ 0.75 HR/ 48.3% GB/ 8.9% HRFB/ 4.13 xFIP/ 4.26 SIERA
2010: 5.25 K/ 3.09 BB/ 0.87 HR/ 47.9% GB/ 8.8% HRFB/ 4.43 xFIP/ 4.59 SIERA
2011: 6.36 K/ 2.66 BB/ 1.25 HR/ 52.3% GB/ 15.5% HRFB/ 3.64 xFIP/ 3.84 SIERA
Career: 5.83 K/ 3.14 BB/ 1.11 HR/ 50.4% GB/ 12.3% HRFB/ 4.19 xFIP/ 4.26 SIERA
A quick glance tells us one thing: Zambrano is older and is trending backwards and Volstad is younger and is trending forwards. Zambrano saw a few tell-tale red flags that point to decreases in ability and success: significant drop in strikeouts, spike in HR allowed (partially due to HRFB and partially due to skill), and a drop in GB%. Big Z's positive skills are going in reverse, which is what should be happening for a pitcher who is on the wrong side of his prime. Meanwhile, Volstad saw just the opposite. His K rate shot up, his walk rate decreased significantly, he saw a huge increase in the number of GB he got, and the primary reason for the end results he had was a drastic spike in HR/FB ratio. Fight now, it's hard to judge the HR/FB issue with Volstad considering he's had such drastic differences in rates:
If Volstad can keep up all his other rates and finally give us a good sense as to what he'll do from HR/FB ratio, then we're looking at a guy who is ready to make significant strides in terms of his end results. Not necessarily to the point where he'll be a great success, but to the point where he's a guy who makes you feel very comfortable when you have to send him to the mound as a 4th or 5th starter. If he can throw 175 innings of 3.8 ERA ball, then he can be an individual who provides surprise value to a team that is desperate for it in their rotation. Volstad has better velocity and movement on his pitches, better trends in his rates (and better overall rates currently), and is entering the stretch in his career where he should be putting up his best numbers. Zambrano is doing the opposite, and those are the reasons that this is much more than a simple salary dump for the Cubs.
I firmly believe that Miami has gone through with this trade for three possible reasons:
1) They want to continue to build up the interest in their team. Adding Zambrano to the mix just adds another fiery personality to the party and makes for a more interesting club. He's a much bigger name than Volstad, and he brings another personality to the team that may help sell more tickets.
2) They believe they can turn Zambrano around. Since 2008, Zambrano has been a member of losing teams that have gone through a lot of turnover. He was one of only a few players remaining from the Cubs' 2003 NLCS team, he had many different managers in Chicago, and the turnover seemed to leave him with few allies in the dugout. As I mentioned before, Zambrano now gets to go off and play for one of his best friends: Ozzie Guillen in a community that is new to him and has not yet had a chance to grow tired of his antics. A change in attitude may be what Zambrano needs to extract the last couple good years he might have in his body. After all, Zambrano's nickname is El Torro, which not only speaks about his anger issues, but also about his stamina and durability. At 31 years old, there's still a slim shot that he's got something left in the tank.
3) They simply feel that Zambrano might be better than Volstad next year. Perhaps their analysis department is reaching a conclusion that I cannot see. From my well-hit analysis, I reach the same conclusions that I came about when doing a fangraphs breakdown. Zambrano does have one thing that Volstad doesn't: a track record of success. There have been years in the past where Zambrano has been a great pitcher who can bring a lot to a team. As little evidence as there is of that ever returning, there's always the possibility that Zambrano could have one season where he reverts back to his days as one of the game's better pitchers.
In the end, this deal slightly favors the Cubs from a player value standpoint, but it should be a net wash for the Marlins at the end of the day. Zambrano should help sell more tickets than Volstad could have, and the Marlins only have to pay him $2.5 million for one season. Any starter who could possibly post an ERA in the 3's and comes at have of the market value for a win is a guy worth taking a chance on. The Marlins trade 3 years of a cost-controlled young starter with some average potential for a guy that could catch fire for a season and make things really interesting in Miami. However, the Marlins did, in my opinion, get a little less talented on the field and moved controlled years of a guy going into the best years in his career. That combined with the obvious chance that Zambrano has at least one blow up that draws negative attention to the team makes me side with TheoCorp. on this one.